About raising multilingual or bilingual children
If you, your partner or other people who help you raise your child – like grandparents or friends – speak languages other than English, you might want your child to grow up hearing and using these languages. Or you might want your child to grow up hearing and using another language even if you don’t – for example, if you’ve spent time overseas during your child’s early years.
Raising multilingual or bilingual children has many benefits. For example, it can improve communication and bonds in your immediate family, boost your family’s sense of cultural identity and belonging, and improve your child’s literacy and other language skills.
Raising multilingual or bilingual children: your family’s options
The way you help your child learn more than one language will probably depend on where and how often your child can hear and use the language or languages. For example, your child might hear and use the language a lot at home with a parent, partner, family member or friend. Or your child might hear and use the language only in certain situations – for example, at a grandparent’s home.
Here are 2 models that can help with your child’s language development.
Heritage language as home language
If you frequently use a heritage language in your home, you, your partner or your family member should try to communicate as much as possible with your child in that language.
For example, you might have migrated from Ethiopia to Australia and speak Amharic to your child at home. Amharic is your heritage language. Your child also goes to school and speaks English with their friends and teachers.
Another example is if you and your partner have hearing impairments and you’re raising a hearing child. Your children might learn Auslan at home and English in the hearing community.
The heritage language as home language model means that your child hears and uses this language a lot at home because everyone else in the home is using it.
One person-one language
If you, your partner, your family member or your friend have different languages, the one person-one language model might work for you.
For example, if you’re an English speaker and your partner, relative or friend is a Mandarin speaker, you would speak English with your child and the other person would speak Mandarin with them.
You can also use this model if 2 people in your household speak different heritage languages. For example, if you speak Arabic and your partner speaks French, you would each speak your own language to your child at home.
If you both speak English as well, you might choose to use English with your child outside the home. If you speak a heritage language with them outside the home, that’s fine too. Your child will have plenty of opportunities to learn and use English at school and in the community.
The one person-one language model works best if everyone understands each other’s languages, even if they can’t speak them. This way no-one feels left out when you speak your language to your child.
Your child might be less willing to use their heritage language or languages as they get older. If this happens, try to keep using their heritage language with them, especially at home. Even if they start responding more in English, they’ll still benefit in the short and long term from hearing the language.
Raising multilingual or bilingual children: tips
Here are practical tips for supporting your child’s multilingual or bilingual development.
Play and games
- Read and tell stories in your heritage language, and encourage your child to join in. Use dress-ups and be creative!
- Play games in your heritage language, especially games that focus on language – for example, ‘I spy’, bingo, ‘Who am I?’ and memory.
- Sing songs, dance and play music in your heritage language. Children love music, and melody is a great way to help them remember things.
- Look for child-friendly word game apps in your heritage language.
- Look for schools, child care centres, playgroups and multilingual or bilingual programs where your child can use their heritage language.
- Organise playdates with other children who speak your child’s heritage language.
- Take your child to shops and other venues where they can experience their heritage language being used.
- Host visitors who speak your heritage language or visit countries where the language is used. This can significantly boost your child’s language development and their interest in the language and culture of your heritage language.
- Go to the library or your local community centre and borrow CDs, DVDs, picture books, age-appropriate fiction and magazines in your heritage language.
- Look for cultural activities that you and your child can do together to tap into your family’s cultural heritage and identity. For example, Harmony Week is widely celebrated across Australia in March each year.
- Talk to your children in your heritage language from birth.
- Listen to radio programs in your heritage language, including popular music programs and channels for teenagers.
- If you have family and friends who live overseas, encourage your child to connect with them using video-chat or online.
- Think about what your child is interested in – for example, soccer, music, TV shows, cooking and so on. Try incorporating your heritage language into these interests. For example, you could find a typical recipe from your community and cook it together using only your heritage language.
- Watch movies or sport in your heritage language – for example, through satellite TV or online streaming services. You can sometimes switch the audio or subtitles of English content into other languages.
- Help your older or teenage child find safe, interest-based online communities in their heritage language. Just be mindful of pre-teen internet safety and teenage internet safety.